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Are Dramatic Comedies The Only Way Comedy Movies Get Awards?

During this latest entertainment awards season, you might have read some headline about 12 Years A Slave and Nebraska leading in nominations. Maybe you’ve heard some buzz about Dallas Buyers Club or American Hustle or Inside Llewyn Davis or August: Osage County. There’s a common thread in these films, as unrelated as they may be, in that none of them are comedies, through and through.

Yes, they have comedic moments, even enough of them to be considered in that convenient marketing label of comedic drama, or its catchier version, “dramedy”. I saw Dallas Buyers Club, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Nebraska, and they are all, in my opinion, award-worthy and do have moments where I guffawed. Still, whether it’s a conscious or subconscious notion, critics, voters, and other people in charge of deciding who gets nominated and wins the awards at The Golden Globes, SAG Awards, Spirit Awards, Oscars, etc. don’t consider comedies for the big honors without a large dose of drama in the plot.

If you aren’t convinced that this is an issue, The Golden Globes have had to come out just recently and defend their definition of what they consider “a comedy”.

I also saw Todd Berger’s It’s A Disaster (here’s the trailer) and Lake Bell’s In A World… (here’s that trailer), which were both laugh-out-loud, yet subversive, comedies. Both rose above most theatrical comedy fare that entertains for 90+ minutes, then leaves no real lasting impression. Yet, In A World… has only managed to snag a Best First Screenplay nomination from The Spirit Awards.

Of course, these distinctions in film excellence are incredibly subjective, but take a look at the pedigree of any heavily favored film over the last several years. Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, and The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King are the winners of Best Picture at The Oscars over the last decade. Off the top of my head, I can remember Armando Iannucci’s almost undeniably hysterical In The Loop getting nominated for an Oscar (Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay, 2010), but other Oscar-nominated comedies are hard to come to mind. One has to go back to 1998 with Shakespeare in Love or 1994 with Forrest Gump to even come close for comedies garnering an Oscar statuette for Best Picture.

Call it bias, prejudice, or whatever else you want, but a pure comedy objectively seems to have little chance these days to stick those award winner stickers on their DVD boxes. The Golden Globes has a comedy and/or musical category, perhaps to make up for this trend, and dramedies still dominate. This year, the Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy category at The Golden Globes has nominated Nebraska, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Her. From their IMDB pages, The Wolf of Wall Street is closest in genre description to comedy, with biography-comedy-crime.

In short, a lot of those nominations are a stretch. Again, I’m not saying that they aren’t spectacular movies that don’t deserve recognition. Comedy movies just seems to get overlooked during awards season if they don’t have some sobering moments throughout.

It’s only a working theory, but I’d wager that this dynamic won’t ever change just based on the difference in visceral experience between drama and comedy. Forget which is better or harder, but people, definitely the ones who nominate/vote during awards season, are moved to think of something as Oscar-worthy when there’s been an a very nuanced, but intense emotional journey in a film, as opposed to laughing almost to the point of tears. So many scenes in 12 Years A Slave are heart wrenching for both content and execution, which is undoubtedly why it’s an awards season contender. I couldn’t help but laugh violently at a single shot in It’s A Disaster of a couple dead from poison gas because they were late to the party, just pathetically draped across the porch. The latter, while arguably just as effective in its aim to laugh as 12 Years A Slave is in its aim to key in on human empathy, suffers in the awards context because awards voters would rather err on the side of serious versus funny.

You can dismiss the premise that comedy is given short shrift at awards time (again, that’s just subjective and sad movies can totally be your thing), but how is it that television doesn’t really have this problem with Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and Veep, etc. being perennial awards nomination favorites?

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  1. Elliot says:

    It’s not simply “serious versus funny.” It’s legitimate budget + talented filmmakers + credible actors + worthwhile script + technical achievement & cinematic artistry + subject that matters versus something a group of friends thought was funny and shot over a long week-end. Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the funniest movies out in a long time. And it doesn’t need to abandon basic filmmaking or storytelling principles to service laughs. If there’s no drama then it’s not a story, just a string of jokes and gags parading as one. There are two kinds of stories: comedy and tragedy. Both require drama.

  2. Shayde says:

    I dunno.. I thought 12 Years a Slave was HILARIOUS!!!! – Unnamed Golden Globe member.

  3. Tausif Khan says:

    Comedies tend to be anti-establishment especially in the movies. Awards shows are about creating and maintaining a brand of quality. Best comedies try to unsettle it.

    Emmy’s have also had a problem with comedy nominating safe fare like Modern Family while greatness like Community has next to nothing. They also nominated Nurse Jackie in comedy with Edie Falco telling people on the stage that the show is a drama.

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  5. The rule of thumb is comedy is the most difficult genre there is. Anyone can be dramatic or show fear but to be funny is another level. However awards show(OSCARS) don’t really respect them because if someone can do comedy well that mean it’s easy to do (WHAT?!). What the OSCARS and other award shows should do is have a separate award for comedy(film actor actress & writing) that is the only way a comedy will win. In the last 30+ years only 2 comedy films have won the Academy Award.

  6. Ted says:

    American Hustle is unequivocally a comedy. Perhaps a rather dark comedy, but a comedy. It just is.

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  9. Dustin says:

    Which movies get award attention might also have at least something to do with the amount of marketing they get and the scope of their release, at least when it comes to the sample of movies in this article. I pay a fair amount of attention to movies, and I hadn’t heard of “It’s a Disaster” or “In a World…” before reading this. The others I’ve either seen or heard of and plan to see. (In fairness, I’m now interested in seeing the other two now, too.)

  10. Cornelius Rudiger III says:

    It’s an interesting point. I guess we would have to assume that an Oscar makes a movie good. I would like to see Jake’s list of movies over the past decade that he thought should have been Oscar winners that were pure comedies.

  11. The NME says:

    Personally, I gave up on the Oscars a long time ago. They don’t award films based on their merit. They award films based on politics and money. Great article.